BOULDER — In 26 days, Boulder woman Laura Knoblach finished the equivalent of 20 Ironman Triathlons and set a world record for a Double Deca Ultra Triathlon last week in León, Mexico.
After swimming 48 miles in a pool (yes, a swimming pool), biking 2,240 miles in 4.3-mile laps and running 524 miles in 1.3-mile laps at León’s Metropolitan Park — add it all up and it equals the driving distance from Denver to Atlanta and back — Knoblach finished in 633 hours, 41 minutes and 39 seconds. That was more than nine hours faster than the previous women’s world record.
“You walk the last lap with your crew and anyone who feels connected to you as a racer,” said Knoblach, 24. ”It’s special. It’s very personal. And to be honest, it felt really surreal. You’ve done this race for a month. It didn’t feel like I was actually finishing it, and it really didn’t set in. I was mainly just relieved that I could sleep. I told a friend, ‘I think I’m going to wake up and think I have to do more loops tomorrow.’”
More than a month after finishing the swimming portion, Knoblach still has red blotches on her neck caused by chlorine burns. It looked a lot worse when she dragged herself out of the pool, though.
“It looked like someone had taken a piano wire and tried to strangle me,” she said.
Those marks will disappear soon, but she carries emotional scars that aren’t as obvious — until she shares the story of how her background has shaped her life as an ultra-endurance athlete. Last year, she made national headlines after accusing her father, a powerful politician in Minnesota and chairman of the Minnesota House Ways and Means Committee, of molesting her for years. She told her story to Minnesota Public Radio, which reported that then-Rep. Jim Knoblach “inappropriately touched her for most of her life.” He denied her claims but ended his re-election campaign after she came forward.
Chatting about the endurance athlete’s life in a Boulder diner last week, Knoblach, who’s quick to laughter and radiates a warm joy, readily made the connection between the pain of her childhood and the physical pain that comes from ultra-triathlons.
“I think being a positive person and looking for challenges to try to better myself is the reason I get up,” Knoblach said. “My senior year of high school, I spent most of my nights sleeping in my car at friends’ houses. I moved out the day after I turned 18. I don’t think there’s anything in life that’s harder than that. I keep looking for it — there’s nothing harder than that.”
The ultra-endurance world brought her community. The lifestyle became like therapy.
“It absolutely was,” Knoblach said. “I lost my entire family when I came out about my dad. I’d really lost them before. But for you to make a step like that, it takes having a community of people in your corner, and the ultra-tri community was the people in my corner.”
Knoblach spoke out about her father in September 2018. Disowned by her family back in Minnesota, she spent last Christmas with Shanda Hill, a Canadian ultra-triathlete who finished second to Knoblach in last week’s ultra.
“My first Christmas I spent without my family, I spent with her,” Knoblach said. “I spent it actually with a bunch of ultra-triathletes; we all went to Canada and spent Christmas together. It was the best Christmas I’d had in my entire life.”
Hill, who says Knoblach is “like my little sister,” believes Knoblach not only survived her background but thrives because she chose the path of positivity.
“That’s what is really beautiful about Laura and some of the other athletes who have come through extreme adversity,” Hill said. “You will see this a lot in ultra-sport because it takes some really special people. They’ve come through adversity and they realize, ‘That’s not going to kill me. I’m going to make the most of each moment.’ It’s a fascinating group of people.”
It is a very small group, though. Only four men and four women made it through the Double Deca, although there were other athletes on the course at the same time doing shorter distances — Ironman times three, times five and times 10, or “deca.” An Ironman triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike portion and a marathon (26.2 miles).
“At the end of the day, it’s brought a lot of meaning into my life,” Knoblach said. “You can imagine that this is a group of very inspirational, uplifting, kind, positive individuals. When you spend a month bonding with them, it changes you, and I think it makes you a better person. To me, that’s what matters: Is this enriching to my life? Is it enriching to who I am as a person?’ And it really is.”
Knoblach did her first triathlon, the Boulder Ironman, in 2015 while a student at the University of Colorado. It took her 15 hours, 34 minutes, 36 seconds, but before she crossed the finish line, she was already planning her next one. Triathletes usually start with shorter distances than the Ironman, but Knoblach started there and immediately decided that 140.6 miles of swimming, riding and running just wasn’t enough.
“I don’t know why I thought of this, but I was like, ‘Is there anything longer? Give me more,’” she said. She followed it up with a double, a triple and two decas before the León event.
During her 53-hour swim in León, she took a nap for an hour and a half. Then, because of the chlorine burns, she decided to take 12 hours between the end of the swim and the beginning of the bike segment. She used the downtime for sleeping, eating and treating her burns.
Deciding how much rest time to take in events like these involves balancing multiple factors. The clock starts with the first swim stroke, and competitors are timed until they cross the finish line in the run. It doesn’t stop when they take breaks.
“The longer you sleep, usually the faster you can go and the better recovery you have,” Knoblach said. “But also, the longer you sleep, the longer (you are) off the course. You need to find a balance of sleeping where it’s just enough for your body to recover a little bit, just enough for you to not fall asleep on the bike and not fall behind your competitors.”
Knoblach got four to six hours of sleep a night over the 12 days on the bike. On the running days, she tried to sleep six hours daily, because running is harder on the body. She skipped her last sleep break, though, because Hill wasn’t far behind.
“She was too close for comfort, so I decided to pull an all-nighter,” Knoblach said. “Actually it was an all-dayer, because during the run, I switched my sleep schedule to sleeping between noon and 4-5 p.m. and running all night because it was cooler. I don’t do well in heat.”
Most successful ultra-endurance athletes are in their 30s or beyond, so at 24, Knoblach is young compared to others succeeding in the sport.
“Laura has a really beautiful mind,” said Hill, 37. ”There’s a lot of people that could have the body to do almost anything, but they don’t have the mind for it. Somehow, at a young age, she harnessed that.”
And somehow, she’s not bitter about the pain of her childhood, as it helped her find joy in pushing her body to the limit.
“I don’t have time to be bitter,” she said. “There’s times when I am, and it’s frustrating. Especially with my mom. I miss her. I don’t know if I’ll ever talk to her again. But when people are so deeply unhealthy and so deeply dysfunctional, it’s like, ‘Maybe this is just their loss, go create a life for yourself that doesn’t involve them.’
“Yeah, I wish they could be a part of it, and it still hurts that they’re not,” she said. “But to a certain degree, it’s like, ‘I have my life, I have my people, it’s a shame that they’re not one of them because I wish they were.’ But it is what it is.”